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The Charleston Gazette - "Candidates debate judicial climate"

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Location: Charleston, WV

Candidates for the West Virginia Supreme Court debated the state's previous label as a "judicial hellhole" during a Monday forum at the Charleston Marriott.

Robert Bastress, a West Virginia University law professor, said the hellhole label, which is assigned by the American Tort Reform Association, "is a slander against our circuit judges. We do extremely well in attracting qualified people as judges. And data do not support that charge."

Elizabeth D. Walker, the only Republican candidate, disagreed. "What matters is that that is the perception. I am not sure whether [the judicial hellhole charge] is accurate or not."

Incumbent Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard said, "It doesn't matter whether it is true or not. It is the national perception of West Virginia."

Former Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman said, "The coining of that phrase is inaccurate. I do not believe that is what we are. And judges do have the ability to dismiss frivolous lawsuits."

Hoppy Kercheval, who moderated the live debate broadcast on Metronews Talkline, asked candidates about their views on the continuing controversy over the Supreme Court's 3-2 November reversal of a Boone County jury verdict, now worth $76.3 million, with interest.

That August 2002 verdict ruled Massey Energy owes that money to Hugh Caperton and Harman Mining because Massey hijacked a long-term coal-supply contact from Harman.

Asked about his relationship with Massey CEO Donald L. Blankenship, Maynard said, "We have been friends for 30 years in Mingo County. ... Our part of the world is a very small place. ...

"When the Daily Mail wrote an editorial saying I should recuse myself from this case, I did," he said.

The controversy intensified last month after Caperton provided the court with photographs showing Maynard and Blankenship spending time together during vacations on the French Riviera in July 2006.

Bastress said, "The problem was in his [Maynard's] failure to disclose this. It was a clear lack of judgment to be vacationing with someone who has a case before the court."

Workman said the West Virginia Code of Judicial Ethics gives justices "an obligation to reveal possible conflicts of interest."

Walker, whose husband is one of the owners of Walker Machinery, refused to take any position. "It is difficult for us as candidates to stand in judgment when we personally don't know the facts."

Maynard said, "Every judge in West Virginia knows lawyers who appear in front of them. I did not make any secret of my friendship with Blankenship."

Kercheval asked the candidates if Justice Brent Benjamin should recuse himself from the Harman case. In 2004, Blankenship donated more than $3 million to groups backing Benjamin and/or attacking his opponent, incumbent Justice Warren McGraw.

Walker said, "I don't think any of us are in a position to judge. We do not have an understanding of what the appearance [of a conflict] is."

Workman said, "I will not comment on any individual case, since there could be ethics complaints filed" which she might hear in the future if she wins a seat on the court.

Maynard said, "The press' interest had caused the public to focus on this. We need to set up objective standards as to what kinds of relationships are approved [between justices and litigants before the court].

"We need some system to second-guess a judge's decision to recuse himself. We need a three-circuit judge panel, or one circuit judge, to review a justice's decision," Maynard added.

Bastress said, "The $3.5 million spent [on Benjamin's 2004 campaign] damaged the court."

Menis E. Ketchum, a Huntington lawyer, did not attend Monday's discussion because he was feeling ill, but said he plans to participate in many other forums before the election.

During a telephone conversation on Monday, Ketchum talked about a previously published report noting that he met with Blankenship before filing to run.

"Before I decided to run, I met with 30 or 40 Democratic Party leaders, 30 labor leaders and 30 business leaders." Blankenship was just one of several coal industry leaders at one of those meetings, he said.

"I did not ask [Blankenship] for support and he did not offer it," Ketchum said. "I don't think I am the kind of candidate Mr. Blankenship would ever support. I don't seek his support. I would not accept his support. I don't want his support."

The four candidates also differed on abortion rights.

Calling it a "difficult" issue, Maynard said he would support abortion for a woman who suffered "a brutal rape by some Neanderthal who is a criminal and has an IQ of 65. ... But I would hope for the endorsement of those who support life."

Walker said she is "troubled" by the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court giving women abortion rights, "but you should not put your personal opinions out there."

Bastress and Workman believe decisions about abortion should remain private choices made by individual women.

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